by Brian Kerr
Executive Chef, Deschutes Brewery & Public House
If, for you, this past week was anything like mine, you probably looked reluctantly at your oven and stovetop and immediately resented having to cook a meal indoors. Boiling water, hot burners, radiating ovens, then the steaming dishwasher… all of it evilly designed to raise the temperature in your home to resemble an unbearable, sweltering sauna. Perhaps you are a creature of habit, or have habitual creatures in your home. Maybe you have outspent your restaurant dollars for the month. Perhaps the thought of tackling the parking and crowd downtown is just too much for you to bear in this mid-summer heat. This is why I love grilling. Walk the produce and meat aisles of your (air-conditioned) supermarket, pick several things that appeal to you and your mood and, chances are, they will make a delicious meal thrown together on the grill. Perhaps you gathered a couple zucchini and a sweet onion, asparagus spears and a bell pepper. Make an herby vinaigrette, grab that last corner of crumbly feta cheese, and you have yourself a delicious and lovingly prepared meal without having to turn on your oven or rely on your freezer.
Over the course of the past decade I have owned several grills and other backyard cooking devices. I have had a kettle/charcoal cooker, another contraption that looked straight out of a ‘60’s sci-fi thriller that claimed it was the ‘last backyard cooker I would ever buy!’ (it wasn’t), a smoker and two gas grills. I haven’t had the chance to own or even use one of the fancy pants Traeger grills or a Big Green Egg, though I have no envy. My gas grill is versatile enough for me to preheat to the temperature I need, carefully monitor the heat, add wood chips to enhance aromas and flavors, slow cook, smoke, grill, roast, sear and braise. It’s got a large enough surface that the food isn’t crowded, it is powerful enough to get great sear on pieces of meat and has three tiers to raise the amount of surface available, should items on the grill get too hot or are approaching doneness.
Grilling isn’t hard, prehistoric families were doing it long before you and I bought our grills. But, it isn’t all as easy as you might think. It certainly does take practice, planning, the right products, preparations and the right tools. If you are new to grilling or maybe a bit on the green side of things, I put together a bit of a list, a Ten Commandments of Grilling so to speak.
• Safety First — your grill station should be away from other flammable items like your house and children. You should have handy a squirt bottle of water, a fire extinguisher and grilling mitts. You might even take a page out of your professional chef’s book and keep a small box of baking soda nearby. It will smother any fire in the bottom of your cooking kettle better than water will, which will likely cause more flame and smoke before you extinguish it.
• Correct Equipment — your grill should be in good working order. No rusty grates, no holes in the kettle, working propane lines and regulators. You should also have handy a grill brush, basting brush or mop, instant read thermometer, long metal burger/fillet turner, long sturdy tongs, disposable aluminum pans. Optional items include a veggie box, a fish basket, wood chips of various woods, metal skewers, dual-readout grilling thermometers. Some of the new thermometer probes work wirelessly and some work with an app on your phone so that you can be inside putting finishing touches on sauces and salads as well as mixing drinks instead of running out to the grill every ten minutes.
• Keep Your Grill and Grate Clean — clean your grate with a brush and an oiled paper towel or dedicated kitchen towel. Your food will taste better on a clean grill. You may be cooking outdoors but the same rules apply out there as they do in your kitchen; clean surfaces, no cross contamination, hot food kept hot, cold food kept cold, proper internal temperatures for proteins.
• Preheat the Grill — gas grills heat up quickly and many of them have thermometers on the outside so you can monitor the temperature more accurately. Charcoal grills heat up more slowly but have a more intense heat. Get yourself a charcoal chimney if you have a charcoal grill. These items are really handy and efficient to getting your charcoal started and glowing red hot. Once you have glowing coals, spread them around your kettle for your particular method of cooking — direct or indirect. Now is also a good time to use hardwood chunks like mesquite for a powerful aroma and flavor punch. As far as temperature goes, I like to cook chicken and vegetables at 300 degrees. I cook burgers and franks and small items at 400, and larger cuts like whole turkey or chicken at 350.
• Carefully Arrange Your Grillables in the Right Places on Your Grill — it’s likely that even your grill will have hot spots or cooler areas, like those swinging baskets that hang a few inches over the cooking surface. Remove these alternate grilling baskets if warranted to allow you access to all the steaks, peppers and ears of corn you are grilling. Arrange the meats over the hotter areas and veggies in the slightly cooler areas. And do make it pretty, you will want a beautiful grill to post to your Instagram account.
• Brine or Dry Rub for Added Flavor — don’t just toss the steak on the grill with salt and pepper, buy or create a dry rub or marinade for your hard-won porterhouse steak. The payoff for the effort made is exponentially awesome.
• Learn How to Grill Vegetables — zucchini planks and asparagus are easy and rewarding, but try grill-roasting sweet onions, hatch peppers, ears of corn or romaine lettuce!
• Learn How to Grill Flatbreads and Pizzas — this one is not for the novice, I have burnt more pizzas on the grill than I have had success with, but I’ll tell you once you get it you REALLY get it. Grilled bread with blistered tomatoes? Grilled flatbread with chimichurri, peppers and haloumi cheese? Farmers market margherita pizza and basil with cheese? You know you want to learn!
• Know When it’s Done — read up on the proper internal temps for proteins and keep that info close in your hand or your head, it could save you a lot of embarrassment, frustration and sick friends.
• Rest — your meat that is. Take that perfectly bronzed and aromatic lamb leg off the grill and slice it up for serving immediately, and you will be left with a very large puddle of moisture that SHOULD be inside your lamb leg — and your carefully prepared and seasoned sauce will also be ruined by the excess moisture. Take that leg off, or your beef tenderloin or double cut pork chop and place it on a platter, cover with foil and rest it for ten minutes. It won’t cool down, don’t worry. The rest allows the meat to relax and redistribute the juices evenly throughout.
• Everything Gets a Sauce — maybe you aren’t a skilled saucier? No worries. You’ve been down the aisle at the grocery and seen more barbecue sauce than ketchup? More salad dressing than greens in the produce? Grocers are obsessed with sauces, nearly as much as I am! I always wanted to be a saucier, it is what I studied as I was coming up the kitchen ladder. Don’t like high fructose corn syrup? DO learn to make your own sauces then! Vinaigrettes for vegetables, spicy-sweet mayo for sandwiches, charred onion salsas for anything taco related, chimichurri, ginger-soy, sweet and sour, tahini-cashew cream, compound butters, cherry-habanero ketchup, oh my! The possibilities are literally endless. Your food will be so much better if you make or buy a quality sauce to go with your carefully grilled dinner.
• Use Your Grill as a Smoker — kettle ‘cues and gas grills work great as a substitute smoker. I use small, shallow disposable aluminum pans that I place underneath the grate, on top of the elements, with some soaked Applewood or cherry wood chips and let them do their thing. Even a couple of steaks or burgers with ten minutes worth of Applewood smoke makes an amazing impact on the flavor and aroma of your food.
In conclusion, I urge you to consider the possibilities of using your grill for more than just the occasional burger cookout. Your grill is an extremely useful tool in your box for creating absolutely delicious, even daringly complex dishes. It is extremely versatile for cooking any kind of protein like skewers, wings, fish fillets and steaks. Cooking vegetables on the grill is quite rewarding, as is bread, peaches, polenta, street corn, and even for beginning a grilled Gazpacho soup. If you are considering resources for brushing up on your grilling skills, I prefer the Bon Appetit Grilling Book, Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, The Barbecue Bible by Steven Raichlen and The Gardener and the Grill by Karen Adler.
Go forth, Central Oregon and grill it, grill it all. I want to see barbecue smoke in the air this summer, not our precious forests going up in smoke. Grilling is truly a family and friend event for any meal of the day that takes little effort for a great reward.